United for the Cure

imageby David Waggoner

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s we were going to press on this issue I decided to scrap a Frontdesk essay that I was fond of for one that might not be as well written but is certainly more timely. The hot topic coming out of AIDS research labs is that there is a glimmer of hope that a functional cure might be a possibility in the not-too-distant future. This is exciting news for the millions whose virus is already resistant to the available meds or have poor access to approved drugs in the anti-AIDS arsenal.

But as with all discoveries one should be wary that the hype doesn’t outweigh the hope. How do we go beyond optimism and make a real difference in a world that still sees more than two million new infections every year (with over 50,000 new cases in the United States alone)? One strategy is to continue supporting two practices that are really on the same side of the prevention coin—destigmatizing HIV and educating about the disease.  [pull_quote_right]Without AIDS awareness we can grow complacent thinking that science will solve everything[/pull_quote_right]Without AIDS awareness we can grow complacent thinking that science will solve everything; that we should relax because a functional cure will inevitably happen. But the exciting news about “flushing out” HIV from hard to reach viral reservoirs needs to become more than a theory. It’s complex stuff. Going to the moon was nothing compared to getting to the cure.

HIV is certainly the most deadly viral plague in human history. It has killed forty million worldwide in three decades. It has infected up to one-third of the adult population of some African countries. It has cost countless lives due to ignorant leaders who, because they denied the basic epidemiology of their own AIDS prevention departments, have endangered their own citizens, replacing sound medical advice (early use of antiretrovirals) in favor of highly suspect “naturopathic” approaches to treatment (see South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki’s suggestion that beetroot might cure AIDS). What does denial do but weaken our intellect? It makes hope for a cure seem like a falsehood. It takes away our right to fight for the thing we most hope for. And it creates a vacuum—remember what they say about nature, that it abhors a vacuum? If there is dysfunctional activism, then it is the failure to function as one force. To remain united, and to see the end of AIDS, is an idea whose time has come: Taking Responsibility.

Donna Mills, this month’s cover and undisputed Queen of Television Drama (Knots Landing, General Hospital, and launching this month, TV Guide Channel’s Queens of Drama), addresses this very idea—that the devastation caused by AIDS doesn’t have to repeat itself. She points to the real problem—denial. “Abstinence-only? Come on. I mean really—these young adults are beings, sexual beings; they are going to have desires. You can’t just turn that off. They need to be educated on how to be responsible.” She has always been there to counter ignorance with truth, as one of the first to dramatically step forward in the earliest days of the epidemic and dispel all the worst myths of how HIV “was transmitted.” She has been crystal clear in her compassion and her fearless stance from day one: “I mean people didn’t want to touch somebody that had AIDS—it was terrible…it’s a virus that’s transmitted through blood [and semen]….don’t think that you can get it from kissing or touching.”

It’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves instead of spreading HIV inaccuracies and AIDS distortions. What we can do to help is set the stage for that learning to take place. Others we’ve interviewed for this issue are enthusiastic teachers. Actors Willam Belli and Killian James both want to expand the dialogue about the benefits of PrEP as a prevention tool. The members of the Each Other Project seek to create a space where community and HIV prevention practices are nurtured. Artist Kia Labeija invites us to contemplate identity and living with HIV. AIDS Walk New York team leader Gary Cowling is still having to remind people that AIDS is not over. And through his play, Red Flamboyant, Don Nguyen offers a glimpse of HIV support in Vietnam. It’s evident that we are united in our teaching; now let’s be united in our learning.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.